Perspectives on Jewish Music, a collection of five essays addressing music in contemporary Jewish culture and personal Jewish history, is edited by Jonathan L. Friedmann, a cantor, string player, and author. In his introduction, Friedmann describes music as a tool of cultural preservation and emphasizes the role of music performance in defining Jewish personal and group identities throughout the Diaspora. Because of the many different contexts and conditions of Jewish life in the twentieth century, music has played a variety of roles and reflects a broad diversity of influences. This multiplicity of Jewish musical experiences is reflected in the disparate subjects of the book’s chapters.
The first essay in the collection, by ethnomusicologist Jeff Janeczko, is a study of four musicians who have created compact discs in the Radical Jewish Culture series, part of John Zorn’s Tzadik recording label. Janeczko explores the ways these performers plumb “Diaspora’s potential as a creative resource” (10). He argues that the fusion of musical styles and idioms in these records represents the musicians’ varied responses to their Diaspora identities. “Diaspora consciousness,” he explains, frequently translates into a global consciousness, or interest in the world’s music and languages, as well as a global conscience, or concern for victims of discrimination. Janeczko describes several musical tracks on these recordings, providing the reader with a sense of their varied style, and quotes extensively from interviews and composers’ writings. In some cases, the statements made in interviews would have benefited from paraphrasing, as the colloquialisms and casual language he transcribes without editing are sometimes confusing and detract from important points the musicians are attempting to make. Janeczko’s conclusion, however – that the condition of Diaspora has provided a creative impetus for musicians to find and forge unexpected connections between disparate musical styles – is compelling as an explanation of the eclecticism of the recordings in the Radical Jewish Culture series.
Mark S. Goodman, a rabbi and cantor, provides the second essay of the collection, which seeks to explain the emergence of musical styles and instruments associated with 1960s and 1970s American folk music in American Reform and Conservative Jewish services. Since its founding, the Reform movement, which does not follow orthodox Jewish laws banning the performance of musical instruments on holy days, became gradually less reliant on the role of the cantor, and increasingly incorporated choirs, organs, and a variety of instruments into religious services, sometimes in emulation of the music of Christian churches. Goodman’s history of rock and folk music in America sometimes appears over-simplified, but his argument about the influence of these genres on music in the synagogue is persuasive. He explains that a generation of young American Reform Jews, in their involvement in the 1960s in both Jewish summer camps and liberal political movements, became familiar with the folk music of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and others, and sought, as they assumed leadership roles in planning services, to replace the modalities and Hebrew texts of liturgical cantorial music with the sing-along style, guitar accompaniment, diatonic harmonies, and English texts they associated with folk music.
The third chapter, by Friedmann, addresses the importance of humility in the cantor’s responsibility for leading the synagogue congregation. Friedmann draws on historic texts, biblical quotations, Jewish law, and more recent academic writing, in his short essay about prayer in Jewish life, the doxological Kaddish, and, more generally, the crucial place of music in Jewish worship.
Performer and ethnomusicologist Vanessa Paloma, in her well-researched essay in chapter 4, addresses music’s role as a mnemonic aid and a tool in the formation of religious and gender identities in Sephardic Judaism. She presents a dichotomy between the public sphere of Sephardic life, in which music is associated with Hebrew liturgy and masculinity, and the domestic sphere, correlated with various genres of Judeo-Spanish song and femininity. Paloma conducts a detailed case study of Jewish music-making in Morocco, and briefer investigations of music in Jewish life in Turkey and Rhodes, to explore the ways in which the public/domestic dichotomy has been bridged as domestic, feminine music-making has entered the public, masculine realm through the adoption of melodies and texts of Judeo-Spanish songs into the liturgy.
The final and longest chapter of Perspectives on Jewish Music is Friedmann’s charming transcription of the oral history of composer and cantor William Sharlin. Born in 1920, Sharlin was raised in an Orthodox family in New York and Jerusalem. Sharlin describes the roles of music and religion throughout his life. As a youth, he attended a performance of the renowned cantor Yosele Rosenblatt and studied at a yeshiva; but over the years he gradually moved away from his Orthodox upbringing, studying piano and composition and eventually adopting Reform Judaism. Sharlin recounts his musical and cantorial training, summer camp employment, and interactions with prominent academic and religious figures in the Jewish community.
Underlying the articles in this collection is the difficulty of defining what constitutes “Jewishness” in music. The meaning of the term “Jewish music” has long been a concern of Jewish and non-Jewish musicians alike, and was the subject of particular focus by such early twentieth century musicians and musicologists as Lazare Saminsky, Ernest Bloch, and Abraham Zvi Idelsohn. Sharlin, recalling a lecture in which he asked “What is Jewish in Jewish music,” gives his reply: “Everything – and nothing” (121). The diversity of subjects addressed in the book’s rich bibliography of mostly English-language sources on music in Jewish culture further emphasizes the difficulty of coming to a useful definition of “Jewish music.” This collection of essays suggests that the term may be too fraught to be defined in any single satisfactory manner, but that the question can nonetheless be of value by inducing scholars to explore a diversity of ways in which music factors importantly into Jewish culture around the world.
Joshua S. Walden is Junior Research Fellow at Merton College, University of Oxford